Notes on Premodern Sleep Patterns

As a start on this topic, the following paragraphs come from a paper I submitted in a social work class in April 2008.

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One should not underestimate just how much human existence can vary from what may now seem normal and universal.  That point, and the strangeness of today’s lifestyles when viewed from the perspective of long human experience, emerge sharply when one considers the subject of sleep.  At present, many Americans do not sleep very well (National Sleep Founda­tion, 2007).  But according to Ekirch (2001), throughout the millennia before artificial light, the biologically natural pattern appears to have been to go to bed not long after dusk; lie awake for an hour or two; sleep approximately four hours; get up for a while, or talk, or think about things, or drowse half-awake again for another couple of hours; and then sleep for another four hours – more in the winter, less in the summer, but generally more than Americans sleep now.

The modern experience of (ideally) eight hours of continuous sleep may result, not from any natural pattern, but from exhaustion.  But it has become ingrained in the modern economic system.  Reversion to the natural pattern would radically alter the structure of the typical workday.  Taking the point further, in 1900, the British Medical Journal reported that peasants of the Pskov region in northwestern Russia “adopt the economical expedient” of spending one-half of the year in sleep:

At the first fall of snow the whole family gathers round the stove, lies down, ceases to wrestle with the problems of human existence, and quietly goes to sleep. Once a day every one wakes up to eat a piece of hard bread. . . . The members of the family take it in turn to watch and keep the fire alight.  After six months of this reposeful existence the family wakes up, shakes itself, and goes out to see if the grass is growing.

Robb (2007) reports a similar practice in France in the 1800s.  To recognize how difficult it would be to reconcile 20th-century workplace expectations against these sorts of seemingly natural sleep patterns – with, that is, the basic physiological realities of many worthy human beings – one need only reflect upon unwelcoming corporate attitudes toward the siesta or the brief midafternoon nap (see Baxter & Kroll-Smith, 2005).

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